Chattering Class

The Jet Set Age of Travel, Glamorous Take Off to Turbulent Crash

Journalist William Stadiem's new book, "Jet Set: The People, The Planes, The Glamour and the Romance in Aviation's Glory Years," celebrates the glamorous golden age of air travel - from its take-off in 1958, to its demise in the 1970s, and the decidedly unglamorous and class-divided present.

jet set cover

Brendan Francis Newnam: And now, it’s time for Chattering Class. This is the part of the show where we get schooled in a dinner party-worthy topic, and for this week’s installment, put on your suit and tie, flag down the flight attendant and order Brandy Alexander, because today, the subject is the Jet Set Era, and our teacher is William Stadiem. He is the author of the new book “Jet Set: The People, The Planes, The Glamour and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years”. William, welcome, and I think we just need to get something out of the way here. According to your book, Frank “Come Fly With Me” Sinatra was scared of flying?

William Stadiem: Yes! It’s remarkable. The man whose anthem, “Come Fly With Me”, was the song of the Jet Age, he was a control freak and he hated turbulence. He didn’t want to fly through choppy skies. He was the first of the private jet set. The Learjet Corporation was thrilled to gift him with one of their planes, and he had this politically incorrectly-named plane called the El Dago that he and the Rat Pack would fly around on. They changed it to “Christina” after Tina Sinatra.

Brendan Francis Newnam: He still remains the poster boy of the Jet Set lifestyle, and when most people think about that era, they think about people wearing good clothes, drinking cocktails, laughing on a plane. When you started to research this book, what aspects of the Jet Set scene stood out for you?

William Stadiem: Actually, I was sort of a student at the dawn of the Jet Age, or the middle of the Jet Age, and I was a beneficiary of the student charter flights, where you could fly to Europe on Pan Am and get the champagne and the lobster thermidor for $100 each way. It was remarkable. You had big seats. What would be the worst level of steerage on any airline in the 60s would be at least business class today, if not First. It was very gracious in those days.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The era you’re talking about, you mark the beginning of it October 26th, 1958, which is when the first 707 took off.

William Stadiem: That’s correct. That was the first commercial trans-Atlantic flight. They had been flying it around and testing it for years, but it went into service in October of ’58.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That year, only about half a million Americans went to Europe, and then just a couple of years later, it was up to two million.

William Stadiem: The growth was astonishing. Because of the jet, because of the convenience of it, because of the marketing of the jet… before the jet, 85% of the people who went to Europe went on steamships and went on the ocean liners. Within a decade, that had reversed, and only 15% went on ocean liners, 85% went on jets.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Now, your book chronicles a lot of the people in the business behind the Jet Set scene, and one of the men responsible for that remarkable shift to airplane travel was a man named Juan Trippe, who is the founder of Pan-American Airlines.

William Stadiem: Juan Trippe is the name. The sound of his name was like a Latin patriot like Bernardo O’Higgins, or a dictator, but actually, he was a very hardcore East Coast preppy WASP who went to Yale, and he happened to go to Yale at the right time, because his best friends at Yale were people like the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys. These were the people who helped fund Pan-Am and got it, literally, off the ground, as a small, puddle-hopping mail carrier who got the contract to deliver the mail to Cuba, and went from there to South America and then across all the oceans. That became the colossus of the skies. It was Pan-Am.

Brendan Francis Newnam: His bright idea was bringing normal people to Europe, right?

William Stadiem: Well, his bright idea in the Jet Age was bringing normal people to Europe – but he was anything but a populist until the Jet Age. Then, suddenly, this aristocrat, this elitist, said “I want my airline to rule the world, and the only way we can do it is by carrying as many people as possible.” He did that.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You talk about the uppercase Jet Set and then the lowercase jet set. Frank Sinatra and those folks, they got to where they were going to go anyway, right? They were going to visit these glamorous places. But, it seems like the breakthrough was the middle class being able to go to these other places.

William Stadiem: Absolutely. The plane, that was the magic carpet for the middle class, and the difference between the one percent and the 99% didn’t exist. Almost anyone could go off to Europe and live the Jet Set existence and go to the same places. It was a very romantic era. A brave new world, and Americans got to see the Old World and they got to see culture and they got to see things they had never seen before. I call it the “sophisticating of America”. The Baby Boomers grew up very quickly, and that’s where foodieism and yuppieism, the roots were in the Jet Age.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Then, you talk about the demise of the Jet Set. What brought that on?

William Stadiem: There were a number of factors. One, the economy, what they called “The Kennedy Boom” eventually became “The Kennedy Bust” after he was assassinated. At the end of the 60s, beginning of the 70s, terrorism took to the skies. The idea of a skyjacking was unheard of until then. That scared people off. Then, Juan Trippe was a victim of his own hubris in that he and the people at Boeing, they said “Let’s go even bigger.” The planes were doing so well by the mid-60s, they said “We can do a lot better.” So, they invented the 747, which presaged the age of the flying cattle car, but the 747s were empty. Its advent was in 1971. They had excess capacity for the entire decade of the 70s, and so, that was the end of Pan-Am, the 747. That marked the decline of Pan-Am, which ultimately led to its going out of business.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Talk about the end of glamour. Now, when you go on an airplane, everyone’s wearing sweat pants, you’re stuffed in together. You’re paying $8 for a box that says “protein” on it.

William Stadiem: It’s like a space odyssey. I’m in London now, and I just took this new Airbus, double-decker 380. It was one of the most miserable flights I’ve ever taken. It was 400 people on the plane and it was hideous turbulence, and the stewards told me that this is the 1% vs. the 99% plane. It’s very smooth in first class because that’s in the nose of the plane, but in the back, by having a double-decker, when you hit bad weather, the whole thing is like, shake, rattle, and roll. So, poor Frank Sinatra, if he were ever stuck in the back of that, would be miserable. That’s just an an emblem of the age. We’re in hard times right now. Traveling is no fun.